About Wearing Cassocks and Other Good Habits

call midwifeI am a great fan of the BBC series “Call the Midwife”, which features a group of Anglican sisters working among the poor in a London neighbourhood as midwives. Their order is fictional, but is based upon the actual order and London experiences of the Community of St. John the Divine, then working in London and now moved to Birmingham. Being such a fan of the series, I wanted to check out the real community online. Their numbers are fewer now, as the community has been reduced to five elderly women. What interested me was that unlike their BBC counterparts who wore a blue monastic habit, veil and wimple, the sisters today no longer wear a monastic habit, having dispensed with it since the days when they wore it in the 1960s. In this they are no different than other western monastic orders of nuns, including many Roman Catholic nuns, who since the days of Vatican II have also put aside their monastic habits and adopted secular dress.

It reminded me of a similar phenomenon among the parish clergy. It used to be that a parish priest could be as readily identified on the street by his outward dress, just as monastics could be identified by theirs, at least in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions. Anglican clergy wore a black suit, and a white collar (popularly called “a dog collar”), as did Roman Catholic clergy. Since the days of Vatican II, western clergy have begun dispensing with black suit and collar, and now cannot always be readily identified as clergy when on the street or not officiating at the altar. In some Anglican circles, this outward shedding of clerical dress has been also accompanied by a shedding the clerical title: the clergyman is no longer “Rev. Smith” or “Father Smith”. Now he says, “Just call me Bob.” An exception is that of women clergy—a priestess, in my experience, can usually be counted on to sport the clerical shirt and collar, thereby stressing her clerical status. I remember in particular one photo of a group of Anglican clergy: the male bishop and the male priests in the group photo all wore sport shirts and turtlenecks. The one female priest in the group wore a prominent clerical collar. As she doubtless intended, there was no mistaking her for a layperson.

So, what’s the deal with clerical dress and monastic habits? Do they really matter? Obviously there are things more important than the clothes on one’s back, and no one suggests that one cannot be holy without clerical dress or that outer clerical dress automatically bestows inner sanctity. But I suggest that even so, such things do matter. The proof that they matter is that some have dispensed with them. No one who says of something, “It doesn’t matter, so we should get rid of it” is really quite honest. If it really didn’t matter, then one wouldn’t be concerned about it one way or the other. Clearly the thing has some significance; it is that significance that the reformers are concerned to deny and ditch. When a Baptist says to me, “Incense doesn’t matter, so why use it?”, and when I reply, “If it really doesn’t matter, then let’s keep it”, it then becomes apparent that to him it matters a great deal, which is why he wants to get rid of it. So then we may ask: what is the significance of monastic habit and clerical dress?

It is not just that such habits and cassocks are hot to wear and can be uncomfortable in warm weather. That is true, but it is also true for the wearing of Eucharistic vestments in August, and no one suggests that we ditch them during the Eucharist in the summer in favour of an open neck sports shirt. If the sole perceived problem was merely that the clothes were too warm in summer, one would find the answer in lighter fabrics. Obviously the perceived problem lies elsewhere.

Those monastics arguing in defense of secular dress (such as Sr. Marilyn Baker, a humble and sincere nun of the Sisters of Providence) themselves state where they think the problem lies, and why they dispensed with their monastic habit. They report that they were “advised to become more part of the modern world”, and so they complied by dispensing with their habits. That is, the shedding of the habit was part and parcel of the drive toward secularization, closing the distance between the Church and secular society. For obviously nuns such as the Sisters of Providence were already geographically “part of the modern world” by virtue of them not living a completely enclosed life shut off from everyone else. They did not live as cloistered hermits, but lived and worked among others in society—rather like the nuns featured on “Call the Midwife”. They just wore their habits while working as part of the modern world as a sign and pointer to another power beyond that of merely secular society. The directive to become more part of the modern world therefore referred to ideology, not geography.

This is why the shedding of the habit (or, for Orthodox clergy, the cassock) is a mistake. It is true that the monastic or the clergyman knows who they are, and do not need the clothing to tell them that. But they do not wear that clothing in public for themselves, but for others. If it really is too warm to wear while weeding the garden, it can be dispensed with privately while doing the weeding. The different form of dress worn in public witnesses to the presence of the Church in society, and confirms that the Church is compassionately active in the modern world.

More than that, such clothing witnesses and manifests historical continuity. A habit is not just a bit of clothing, but a uniform, a link, one that stretches through space and time. It unites the wearer to all those others who wear the same uniform, bonding them together visibly as one single reality, wherever those others may live in other parts of the world. It also (and perhaps more importantly) unites the wearer to all those who have worn it in centuries past. A person in today’s society sees a monastic habit and does simply think, “here is a monastic”, but also “here is the presence of centuries of liturgical practice, and history, and tradition, and dogma”. It is this last that I suspect is the sticking point for those advising people like Sr. Marilyn to “become more part of the modern world”. In advising this they were not asking her to mix with the people around her more than she already was, but to close the ideological gap separating the Church and the World.   The true target of those advising ditching the habit was the dogma and tradition it represented, not the warm yards of cloth themselves.

This is perhaps why, anecdotal evidence suggests, the western monastic orders which have dispensed with the habit are declining, while those which have retained it are growing. For secular people may applaud the church when it becomes secular and more like “part of the modern world”. But they will not join that church. Pro-choice people, for example, will be happy if the church adopts a pro-choice stance, but they will not get up out of bed and troop to that pro-choice church for liturgy on Sunday. Rather, they will roll over and sleep in, or else go jogging on Sunday morning, like all the other secular people. One joins a church or a monastic community precisely because it is in some way unlike the modern world, and presents one with a clear alternative to secularism. The different clothing witnesses to the presence of this clear alternative—one rooted in the past centuries and preserving its liturgical practice, history, tradition, and dogma. Wearing a cassock will not save the wearer, or even necessarily indicate that the wearer is spiritually healthy. As Christ warned us, Pharisees also like long robes (Luke 20:46). But a church intent on ditching the cassock to become more part of the modern world is church preparing to die.


  1. Thank you Father Lawrence. As an Anglican (Episcopalian) I agree with you. I am also saddened by the tendency, now prevailing in Episcopal churches, of seeing people ignoring the long established custom of “kneeling for prayer, sitting for instruction and standing to sing. As to the first. It seems to be, do whatever is comfortable. So far, they still sit or stand for the readings, and are happy to sit for the sermon, but I wonder how much longer before these give way. Everybody just do their own thing. Oh well, I am 88 years old so I suppose I am just old fashioned.

  2. Just a thought. In some places, wearing the monastic garb could make a person a greater target for crime and violence. There are nuns who have been attacked simply for being nuns! Plus no everyone respects the habit. Some people use traditional religious garb as Halloween costume or they use it in a way that mocks monastics. Hollywood is notorious for that.

    1. As a monastic, I live as a ‘white’ martyr; the fact that I may become a ‘red’ martyr is, of course, a sobering fact. On the other hand, every Christian needs to contemplate that fact. Prudence says caution is a good thing; but fear of pain and suffering needs to turn to the Cross and remember the kenosis of our Lord Jesus and be transformed into joy of following the Master as He calls.

  3. Fr. Lawrence,
    Your explanation of why it is good to wear distinctive religious clothing is well done. Please allow a nun who has worn such for 35 years to add to your words. You wrote, “But they do not wear that clothing in public for themselves, but for others.” While it is true we wear the habit for others’ sake, it is equally and perhaps more important that we do indeed wear it for ourselves. For starters, the clothes keep me from sinning! I can’t afford to have a bad day and curse out the cashier–everything I do reflects Christ and His Church. If I misbehave, people can easily write off the whole Church! More important for me personally is that the clothes act as an enclosure when I am out of the physical enclosure of the monastery. Our encounter with Christ is always within one’s own heart, and this idea of enclosure protects, gives safe space, for that encounter to take place. The clothes are part of what enables me to keep that connection even when interacting with people and places outside the monastery. They are a constant reminder that my life is all about Christ. And that He sends me to minister to everyone–I am a walking billboard for Him and His Church! Very often, people come up to us and say how happy they are to see us in habit, how much they miss seeing it–it gives them comfort to know people still give their entire lives to Christ. Wearing habits or cassocks indeed makes a huge difference, let us not give them up!

    1. Thank you, Mother, for your insight into this. I appreciate the view of monasticism “from the inside”.

    2. Mother Magdalena,

      Your perspective reminded me of something that is being much discussed these days, the “Benedict option” (perhaps most cogently written about by Orthodox social/political commentator Rod Dreher). After you move past the false “retreat” charge, you realize that the Benedict option is about trying to find ways, usually small, to live with Christ in the heart in a social/cultural context that is increasingly hostile to doing this. Some of these ways can be criticized in a shallow way, just as some could say that a cassock or habit worn in public is a way to “impose” your views on others, or simply a sign of pride of the wearer (I am not like you, I am different and religious, etc.). It is of course none of these things, and those of us thinking about (and living – I finally canceled our satellite TV subscription this month – a small but important thing) how to live our life in Christ in a culture that is now (in part) openly antagonistic to such things…

    3. To Mother Magdalena:

      “I am a walking billboard for Christ and His Church”. How true this is for nuns who wear the habit and for priests who wear the cassock. I am not a nun but I do wear a cross. This reminds me to be on my best behavior so that anything I might do or say would never cause anyone to think badly of our Lord or of the Church. May God richly bless you for your many years of service!

  4. Fr. Lawrence,

    Thank you for another interesting and valuable message.

    You don’t articulate the reasons why the sisters where advised to “become more part of the modern world,” although Christopher’s comment above may suggest possible reasons. I’m just curious why anyone thought the modern world needed to be coddled so. What was the desired outcome of such a directive — greater compassion? More effective and incarnational evangelism?

    But aren’t we in the modern world the most intelligent and informed generation that has ever lived? Aren’t we able to grasp the most subtle and non-obvious concepts? Aren’t we the most tolerant? If this is the case, ought not the modern world, of all worlds, be most able to bear the existence of clerical garb (and the message such garb communicates about the modern world)?

    In case you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic. One suspects what is really happening here is that the modern world is a demanding beast — The Beast itself, if you prefer. God help us to be brave in the face of this beast’s ever-encroaching demands.

  5. Thank you Fr. Lawrence. I’ve noticed as a layman that not only have some of our jurisdictions dispensed with cassocks, but even with beards because after all “the beard doesn’t make the priest”. The justification is always that of trying to “fit in” with the society around us, almost ashamed of representing something “in the world but not of it”. In Toronto, the only traditional looking priests these days are Old Calendar Greeks. I’ve nothing more to add, you covered it well. Just wanted to say thank you.

  6. Wonderful article , Father.
    Clothes do matter.
    Nobody would be allowed to appear in sporty clothes in front of the Queen. I read a long time ago an interesting article about how many months of negotiations were needed to sort out that kind of protocol because Madiba ie. Mandela flatly refused to get out of his now legendary shirts and appear properly dressed for the visit with the Queen.
    I sometimes wonder how our Lord feels when we attend the church inappropriately dressed, not the mention the priests.

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